The crime of false imprisonment—sometimes called unlawful restraint or criminal confinement—occurs when one person unlawfully restrains someone else without the victim's consent.
What Is False Imprisonment?
The idea of personal freedom is closely related to the belief that you can travel where you choose without being restrained by someone else. When someone else restrains you or prevents you from moving, this is punishable as a crime, known as false imprisonment.
The elements of false imprisonment are below.
- Intentional imprisonment. To be convicted of false imprisonment, a person must intentionally limit or restrict someone else's personal freedom against the victim's consent. The imprisonment can occur whenever the victim is either physically restrained, but physical restraint is not always necessary. You can, for example, commit false imprisonment if you threaten the victim with violence if he or she tries to leave. You can also commit false imprisonment if you restrain someone else by using coercion or deception.
- Nonconsensual. False imprisonment can only occur if the victim does not consent to the restraint. While adults can grant consent by voluntarily remaining in the situation, the same does not apply to children or those who are legally incapacitated, such as adults with cognitive disabilities. A child or incapacitated adult does not have the legal ability to grant consent. In the situation where a legally incapacitated person is restrained, it's the consent of the legally incapacitated person's parent or guardian that is important.
- Lawful justification. In some situations, restraining another person is not false imprisonment even if the restrained person does not consent. For example, many states have laws that allow merchants or store owners to restrain someone suspected of stealing property from the store. However, store owners cannot simply restrain anyone. The retailer must have some reason to believe the person has stolen, or is about to steal, something.
- Use or threats of force. To be convicted of false imprisonment, proof that force or the threat of force was ever used is not required. However, if someone uses force or threatens force as a means to restrain the victim, this often leads to more serious charges or enhanced penalties.
- Duration of restraint. There is no specific amount of time required with false imprisonment charges. False imprisonment can occur if someone is restrained for a very brief amount of time, and there is no minimum amount of time that must be met. However, if the restraint lasts for a long time, typically 12 hours or more, this may also lead to more serious charges or increase the potential penalties.
- False imprisonment and kidnapping. False imprisonment or unlawful restraint crimes are closely related to kidnapping. Both crimes involve the unlawful restraint of someone else using force or the threat of force. Kidnapping also requires prosecutors to show an additional element is present. In some states, the additional element can be as little as moving the victim from one place to another, even if the distance is a very short one. In other states, the person who is subjecting another to restraint must do so with the intent to hold the victim for ransom, use the victim as a hostage or shield, commit another crime, interfere with political or government functions, or terrorize or hurt the victim or another person.
- Civil false imprisonment. If you commit an act of false imprisonment, you can both be charged with a crime and be sued by the victim in civil court. A civil lawsuit is very different than a criminal charge. When a crime occurs, it is up to a prosecutor to charge the suspect in a criminal court. If you are convicted of a crime, you face penalties imposed by the state, such as jail or fines. In a civil lawsuit, the restrained person can sue you in a civil court and ask a court to award damages. If you lose in a civil court lawsuit, you typically have to pay damages to the victim, but you cannot be sentenced to jail or be ordered to pay a fine.
What Are the Penalties for False Imprisonment?
A conviction for false imprisonment can lead to substantial penalties. Depending on the state and the circumstances of the case, false imprisonment can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony offense. Felony offenses are the more serious of the two and have stiffer penalties associated with them.
- Imprisonment. If you are convicted of false imprisonment, you can face a lengthy jail or prison sentence. Misdemeanor convictions can lead to up to a year in jail, while felony convictions are much more serious, especially if threats of violence were involved or the person restrained was a child. Felony convictions can result in 20 years in prison or more.
- Fines. False imprisonment can also be punished with a fine in addition to incarceration.
- Probation. Probation sentences are also possible if you are convicted of false imprisonment. Probation sentences typically last at least 12 months, but two or three-year sentences are common. When ordered to serve probation, you must comply with specific conditions or risk being sent to jail or prison, paying additional fines, or other penalties. Probation conditions often include meeting regularly with a probation officer, not leaving the state without the probation officer's permission, paying all required criminal fines and court costs, and not committing any more crimes.
Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney
A conviction for false imprisonment is a very serious matter and one that requires the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney. False imprisonment charges can significantly harm your life even if you are never convicted. Because of the serious nature of these crimes and the possibility that you could spend a substantial time in jail, you should never make any decisions about your false imprisonment charges until you speak to a criminal defense lawyer in your area. A local lawyer who has experience dealing with the local criminal courts, prosecutors, judges, and who knows the intricacies of the law is the only person qualified to give you advice about your case.